Sunday, September 21, 2014

Oakland the perfect opponent for Patriots' offense to achieve balance

"In truth, there was no no favoritism on the part of Brady, no ignoring other receivers, no lost faith in the receivers' ability to get open nor to catch the football - just a cascading set of priorities, the success of which most assuredly brought a smile to the face of the Dark Master, but also a furrowing scowl to the features of those who saw an opportunity to pile on points against an inferior foe." - Foxborough Free Press, September 18, 2014

You've heard it said that looks can be deceiving? One look at the stat sheet for the Oakland Raiders' defense is a perfect example.

The biggest lie is the notion that their pass defense is the second ranked unit in the NFL - and while it's true that they've allowed a paltry 329 passing yards on the young season, it is equally true that those passing yards came on second lowest passing attempts against in the league.

This disparity can be easily explained.
Brady and the Patriots should display more balance on Sunday

You see, teams don't need to pass against the Raiders, not with their run defense surrendering a whopping 200 yards per game, which is dead last in the NFL.

Yes, the Oakland Raiders have given up more rushing yards than passing yards in both of their contests thus far - a close contest with the New York Jets to open the season, then a woodshed-type whooping at the hands of the Houston Texans last Sunday.

Anyone want to take a stab in the dark and guess what the New England Patriots game plan is going to look like when they host the Raiders this Sunday at Gillette Stadium?

Well despite the disparity in favor of the running game that those two teams have had against Oakland, the Patriots have plenty to work on in the passing game as well, which means that fans of both teams should be prepared to see quarterback Tom Brady and his plethora of receivers expose that second-ranked Raiders pass defense for the middle-of-the-pack unit that they truly are.

This is the type of game where head ball coach Bill Belichick will have a defined list of areas that he feels his team needs to work on, and Oakland provides the perfect opponent and opportunity to practice the time-honored axiom of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win."

What Erhardt meant by his favorite phrase is that his teams should use the pass to gain an early lead - with running plays sprinkled in to keep the defense honest and to set up the play action - then go run heavy to drain the clock and wear out the opposing defense to close out the game.

In that respect, the Patriots haven't come close to putting that package together, as in week one against the Dolphins the offense abandoned the running game as part of some wrong-minded variation of their offensive concept and Brady ended up getting stomped like a grape by Miami's vicious pass rush - and last week the offense took advantage of a 17-point halftime lead to install their power running game and to get tight end Rob Gronkowski integrated into the scheme.

So while there should be an effort to build upon those things against the Raiders, the task at hand should be to maintain more of a balance for 60 minutes.

Most of the chatter this week has involved the passing game, ranging from Brady locking in exclusively on Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to Brandon Lafell and Danny Amendola not being able to get open, which makes them "worthless" - and normally this is the part where we say that the the truth is somewhere between the two extremes, but in actuality, there is no truth in any of it.

As has been the case for the last few years, the Patriots receivers and Brady have been using the first quarter of the season to develop the chemistry that the offseason doesn't afford them time for since the new CBA was ratified, forcing teams to abide by a limited spring schedule and a far less grueling training camp than in the past - which according to Belichick means that teams enter the regular season still needing to find their stride, particularly on offense.

This was particularly evident last season when Brady had to rely on just one returning receiver while breaking in three rookies and dealing with a broken Amendola - and this season is no different when considering that every one of the rookies missed significant time with injuries last year, as did Amendola, so chemistry really wasn't given a chance.

So what is Brady supposed to do?  Belchick certainly wasn't going to expose his franchise quarterback to the hazards of operating deep into preseason games to develop chemistry when the coaching staff also needed that time to evaluate the rest of the team - so what we've seen in the first two weeks of the season is an offense still trying to find their legs and to get into football shape...

...which Belichick has said many times requires actually playing football - and it certainly doesn't hurt to have Edelman as a default safety valve.

Teams with veteran receivers and veteran quarterbacks throwing to them typically won't struggle to find a rhythm to the extent that New England has in the past two seasons - which is why you see teams like Denver, Cincinnati, Atlanta and San Diego off to fast starts and teams like Tampa, Houston and the Patriots not so much.

What determines if these teams ever get on track or if they fade into oblivion depends on a number of factors - having a coaching staff with a solid plan and solid athletes at receiver being prerequisite, and being able to employ a certain Hall of Famer at quarterback never hurts.

But what really had New England reeling initially was a lack of cohesion along the offensive line, which not only impacted the passing game, but also the running game, as the loss to the Dolphins in week one looked to be a case of the coaching staff being unprepared to encounter the struggles that they did across the board while trying to install the offense all at once...

...which was particularly evident with the play calling, which was atrocious on both sides of the ball. So to rectify this, Belichick decided to prioritize the needs, choosing to install the power running game last week - which worked so well that it made priority "1a", getting Gronkowski up to speed, all the more possible.

So, one has to wonder if this wasn't the plan all along - to use the first few regular season games as an extension of the preseason in some respects and implementing different components on offense, then putting it all together against a horrible Raiders' team in their home opener?

Perhaps, despite the second half collapse against the Dolphins - and it goes to figure that if this is the case, Belichick's offense should be able to display a healthy balance that can follow Erhardt's philosophy of passing to score and running to win, and bury the Raiders with a firestorm of consistency.

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